As part of Lisette Auton’s Guest Editorship, Dean Chaffer went along to ARC Stockton on 7th February to review ‘In the Middle of our Street’, a Little Cog production in partnership with ARC Stockton, devised and performed by Full Circle Theatre Company, directed by Vici Wreford-Sinnott. Review by Dean Chaffer
Full Circle Theatre Company is comprised of professional learning disabled actors. In 2018 they became an independent theatre company supported by ARC and Little Cog, who secured funding from Arts Council for them to continue. 2018 was an excellent year for Full Circle as they were also awarded the Catalyst Community Arts and Culture Award. In their tenth anniversary show, and in light of their new-found status, they examine what independence means to them.
The shows are devised by the company themselves with support from creative professional collaborators, in this case director Vici Wreford-Sinnott. With this support the group are able to translate their ideas to the stage. Instead of following a verbal script-based approach, the company combine physical and visual techniques to devise and construct a compelling and thoughtful narrative. This unique and vibrant style, which has been developed over their ten years together, was apparent throughout.
The show seeks to examine why disabled people are often treated in a child-like way. What might it feel like to be regarded as a fully-fledged adult by society as a whole? Independence is an aspect of life the majority of people take for granted. The right to choose what to eat or what time to go to bed. These are seemingly simple and inconsequential choices, but the production explores the challenges and barriers that have to be negotiated in order to achieve a full and independent life.
As the audience enter the auditorium they are given a placard which has a phrase printed on it: dignity, choices, rights and equality. These offer a glimpse into the journey we will be undertaking. A huge projection screen, which takes up the full back wall of the main stage is used to cleverly set each scene, with the background change, depending on the location of the characters within the play.
This also allows for pre-recorded footage to be interspersed with live action – used to good effect when the company watch themselves appear on a daytime magazine show to talk about their achievements. This is titled ‘That Morning’ which bring laughs of recognition from the full house. The screen with its subtitles, a voice over and live BSL interpretation ensure accessibility is met, as well as having a description of what to expect on the theatre doors as we enter.
Full Circle take to the stage to tell the story of Hannah, who would like more from her life and finds herself in an inventor’s workshop. The scenes are superbly acted by the company and we are reminded at various points of the thrill of watching a live performance; in one scene a lit up trike shoots across the stage, till it’s nerve-jangling close to the edge of the stage. After hearing stories of Hannah’s adventures her friends decide they would like to follow and discover what independence might feel like. The key ingredients needed for independence are placed into lit-up shopping trolleys, highlighting the issues.
The most compelling aspect of In the Middle of our Street was its politics – an area that a lot of disabled people may feel under-represented in, or in some cases not be able to participate in. Hannah and her friends create a movement in the Freedom Party – traveling on the funky train from their hometown of Stockton-on-Tees to the Houses of Parliament to deliver a petition to government. They are making a statement for their rights as individuals. This can seem a very difficult thing to do when disabled people often feel disempowered or overwhelmed by the situations they find themselves in.
The visual flair of In the Middle of our Street is complemented by a great soundtrack which is an eclectic mix of feet-tapping songs from different eras. The story and pacing is aided by a number of visual flourishes, reinforced by key messages, leading to a superb climax. The story is told with warmth and comedy, with strength, using powerful visual imagery.
The show does not shy away from its desire to demand more independence for disabled people, as well as being a timely cry for greater representation of disabled people in politics and everyday life.
As we enter 2019, the debate around non-disabled actors portraying disabled characters continues to gather pace. The work of Full Circle adds weight to the fact that disabled people can and should portray themselves on stage and screen – the company have lived experience of the key issues faced by learning disabled people on the road to independence. It is refreshing to see this theatre company telling their story in their own unique way. Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive of Arc in Stockton, says “They offer a unique perspective and insight into a world that is rarely brought to life on the theatre stage.”
At the end of this you will be dancing along to Madness or at least be humming it on the way home. Remember, as Full Circle tell us: “We can all be superheroes in our own lives.”
Here’s to the next ten years.